The campaign in France is faltering. Who will lead England after the death of Henry V? That's the problem to be faced in Henry VI Part 1. I suspect that the answer won't come until the end of Part 3, but the question is posed in the very first scene of Part 1, when the late king's brothers and uncles compete to mourn him, in very different registers: his brother Bedford hysterical, his brother Gloucester furious, his uncle Exeter excessively rational, and his uncle Winchester cunning. Cunning may not sound like a style of mourning, but it is a natural one. When a person dies who has been significant to many, his significance is a property suddenly without an owner. Because the property isn't tangible, the bereaved sometimes quarrel over the dead person's material possessions in its stead, and the fight can turn strangely bitter, because it is doomed to be a losing one for all concerned. However valuable the material legacy may be, the spiritual one—the one that really matters—is beginning to vanish, to be lost forever, as the memory of the departed person begins to fade. The squabble for the material legacy can therefore take on a character of grievance—of taking revenge for a mysterious wound.
When the departed is a king, the material things in need of a new owner amount to a kingdom, and the unpossessed spiritual property is kingship. A kingdom is well worth a little cunning, even if, like Winchester, you are cynical about kingship. In the special case of a departed king, however, it may be that the worldly can only be inherited by someone capable of investiture with the spiritual. Not everyone can draw the sword from the stone. As act 1 gives way to act 2, the question is whether anyone can—whether spiritual kingship still exists, now that Henry V is no more. Maybe all that's left is pretending.
"His deeds exceed all speech," Gloucester laments of Henry's passing (1.1.15). The unhappy corollary is that if Henry V can do no more, then speech no longer has a master. Speaking is free to run ahead of doing, and to seem to control it. This is what the French hope they see in Joan of Arc, and what the English fear to. Joan promises to raise the English siege of Orleans, and inspired by her, the French succeed in raising it. Does her prophesy in fact cause the victory?
What the audience sees on stage is not miraculous. A French gunner has figured out which window the English leaders look out of, when they want to spy on the French defenses, and the audience overhears the gunner point the window out to his son (1.4.1-22). Just before the earl of Salisbury, the highest-ranking member of the English military forces, invites his colleagues to look out the same window, the audience sees the boy run across the stage, presumably to alert his father. Salisbury and another are then fatally shot by a cannonade that intercepts the gaze (1.4.70). This isn't magic; it's marksmanship.
Indeed Talbot, left in charge by Salisbury's death, is not persuaded by Joan's claims on the supernatural. After exchanging a few blows with her in battle, he says in a soliloquy that her leadership reminds him of a trick that Hannibal once played on the Romans, frightening them into retreat by driving toward them two thousand oxen with torches tied to their horns:
A witch, by fear, not force, like Hannibal,
Drives back our troops and conquers as she lists:
So bees with smoke and doves with noisome stench
Are from their hives and houses driv'n away. (1.5.21–24)
By his vivid words, Talbot shows that there is poetry in him, too. It's fitting that Talbot should see through Joan, because his power to daunt the French is similar to hers over the English. While he was their prisoner, the French tried to disillusion themselves about him, by exposing him in a marketplace. Reports Talbot:
Here, said they, is the terror of the French,
The scarecrow that affrights our children so. (1.4.42–43)
But even at their mercy, he remained fearful to them. He boasts that
So great fear of my name 'mongst them was spread
That they supposed I could rend bars of steel
And spurn in pieces posts of adamant. (1.4.50–52)
Later we will see an unarmed English soldier scare the French off stage just by shouting Talbot's name, pausing to explain to the audience that "The cry of Talbot serves me for a sword" (2.1.79).
Joan takes credit for raising the siege of Orleans, and Charles, the future king of France, promises to reward her by erecting a pyramid in her honor and carrying her ashes in yearly processionals (1.6.17–31). The compliment is awfully ambiguous. Charles is all but saying that Joan will have to die in order for him to achieve his kingship—in order for him to inherit her aura, which amounts to kingship outside of a royal person. But almost immediately, the audience has cause to wonder about the potency of the urn that Charles is looking forward to. Observing the French celebration of their victory, Talbot decides to retake Orleans by surprise in the middle of the night, and Charles, Joan, and other French leaders have to hop out of the city in their bedclothes. Joan is not very convincing about the failure of her allegedly divine power.
Wherefore is Charles impatient with his friend?
At all times will you have my power alike?
Sleeping or waking must I still prevail,
Or will you blame and lay the fault on me? (2.1.54–57)
The magic has leached from her speech, so much so that the words "and lay the fault on" sound egregiously like metrical filler.
Having turned the tables on the French, Talbot looks forward to creating a shrine for the late-fallen Salisbury similar to the one that Charles hopes to make of Joan (2.2.13–17). In triumph, Talbot's colleague Burgundy dismisses Joan herself as the dauphin's "trull" (2.2.28). The French and English seem to hunting one another in a hall of mirrors, and Burgundy's insult is followed by a sexual solicitation of Talbot from the countess of Auvergne. It is in Talbot's encounter with Auvergne that the nature of kingship begins to come clear.
Talbot seems at first to swallow the countess's lure. Once she has him in her castle, she insults him. She was expecting a Hercules, she says,
Alas, this is a child, a silly dwarf!
It cannot be this weak and writhled shrimp
Should strike such terror to his enemies. (2.3.22–24)
The countess has the doors locked. If she defeats Talbot, he will be shown to have been as much a fake as Joan, fleeing Orleans in her night gown. Talbot keeps his poise, however, and the countess wonders if she has the right man. He answers, riddlingly, that in the most important way she doesn't:
No, no, I am but shadow of myself:
You are deceived, my substance is not here;
For what you see is but the smallest part
And least proportion of humanity. (2.3.50–53)
At her failure to solve the riddle, he sounds a horn, and his soldiers storm in to rescue him. "These are his substance, sinews, arms and strength," Talbot explains of himself, in the third person (2.3.63). Kingship is not in a person, he is saying; it is a relationship to people—to an army, especially. The magic is false and real at once. Words spoken in prophesy or inscribed on tombs have power not in themselves but only as commands or promises do, as a means of mustering the support of others.
Henry VI Part 1 may be Shakespeare’s first play, but it opens, dizzyingly enough, with the death of one of his great heroes, Henry V. “England ne’er had a king until his time,” one of the dead king’s brothers laments in the opening scene (1.1.8). It’s hard to recognize the fellow in the coffin as the charismatic Prince Hal, however, because he is eulogized with the bald, flat exaggeration appropriate to a superhero. “We mourn in black: why mourn we not in blood?” asks one of the dead man’s uncles. The trouble, I think, is that Shakespeare hasn’t yet mastered the trick of writing well the voices of people who speak poorly—of writing in such a way that his authorial talent is distinct from the characterological faults he is trying to reveal. It’s not obvious enough, that is, that Shakespeare knows that the Duke of Bedford, one of the late king’s brothers, is bombastic and ridiculous. He must have known it, though. The rhetoric of Bedford’s mourning is implausible and grandiose: Bedford claims that England’s future babies will be doomed to suck “at their mothers’ moist’ned eyes” (1.1.50), and he calls for the late Henry calls be memorialized as a constellation—the fifteenth-century equivalent, I suppose, of naming an airport after a president. Bedford overreacts to some bad news by exclaiming,
Is Talbot slain? then I will slay myself,
For living idly here in pomp and ease,
Whilst such a worthy leader, wanting aid,
Unto his dastard foemen is betrayed. (1.1.41–45)
“O no, he lives,” a messenger contradicts him, and I suspect the audience is supposed to enjoy the check placed on the hysteria.
The bishop of Winchester’s poetry is bad in a different way. An unctuous and disingenuous person, his mourning sounds both hyperbolic and calculated, marked by vacuous repetition and stagey chiasmos:
He was a king blessed of the King of kings.
Unto the French the dreadful judgement-day
So dreadful will not be as was his sight. (1.1.28–30)
The only enjoyable lines are those of the duke of Gloucester, who compares the late king to a dragon, in words that Wilson points out derive from Spenser, and who, like a dragon himself, breathes fire at the bishop for insinuating that the church was responsible for the late king’s triumphs.
The church! . . .
None do you like but an effeminate prince,
Whom, like a school-boy, you may over-awe. (1.1.34–37)
Gloucester is a good hater, and one likes him at once for it. On the French side, the duke of Alençon speaks with a similar forthrightness. Mocking the English for seeming faint with hunger, Alençon says that
They want their porridge and their fat bull-beeves:
Either they must be dieted liked mules
And have their provender tied to their mouths,
Or piteous they will look, like drownéd mice. (1.2.9–12)
With some characters, then, the young Shakespeare is able to show his mettle.
With others, it remains hidden. Almost as unrecognizable as the future Henry V is a near-throwaway reference to his future sometime drinking companion, Sir John Falstaff, who appears here as an offstage villain, guilty through cowardice of having lost a battle that Talbot might otherwise have won (1.1.131–32). After being ransomed from French prison, Talbot (like Gloucester, a likable and martial person) exclaims,
O! the treacherous Falstaff wounds my heart,
Whom with my bare fists I would execute,
If I now had him brought into my power. (1.4.35–37)
Falstaff seems to mean nothing to Shakespeare at this point. He’s a vessel for blame, and at the moment, that seems like an uncomplicated thing, or at any rate not the sort of thing to which one devotes attention.
He already knows, however, that he needs to pay attention to Joan of Arc, the witch, who appears in scene two, though one knows that Shakespeare will make much more of her type later. She is the one whose saying makes it so—a precursor to Prospero, and a figure of the poet. She is also—and the two roles seem linked—the first double cross-dresser in his plays, and it is startling to meet her so early. Hers is the first voice that Shakespeare wrote for a man playing a woman dressed as a man. That makes it all the stranger that a scholar like Wilson doesn’t think that Shakespeare introduced her to the play or even wrote her lines. Did Shakespeare simply find her, ready made? Maybe sometimes, when a writer first finds a character, it feels like an accident yet is not one. Whether Shakespeare wrote Joan of Arc somehow doesn’t matter; she became his. The character returns throughout his life. She changes, because his understanding of her changes as he grows older. That is why she has different names in different plays.
Walking the dog one evening last week, after dark and in a drizzle, I was surprised to find a number of young families leaving the park as I entered it. The night was fairly warm, but now that the dark comes early, it is not often hazarded by more than a runner or two. That evening the light rain added a further deterrent. As I crossed the ring road, however, and followed a path that turns right to run beneath a row of lamps, I found even more families, and Toby pulled me between them. They were speaking German. Almost all the children were carrying paper lanterns, for the most part home-made. Between the two baseball diamonds, where they had gathered beside the path under their umbrellas, someone was holding a pony by its bridle. As I passed, I asked a couple pushing a stroller what the holiday was. "Saint Martin's Day," the father told me. "A fine old German tradition, come all the way to Park Slope."
It was strange to find an unsuspected ritual near to home. Though I've lived in Park Slope more than half a dozen years, I had no idea that people here brought lanterns to the park once a year after nightfall, nor that they did so with so much enthusiasm that they were willing to brave rain and hire a pony. Fortuitously I had heard of Saint Martin; I even knew that his saint's day had recently passed. I'd just begun reading Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 1, and in that play, Joan of Arc promises her aid to Charles, the future king of France, in these words:
Expect Saint Martin's summer, halcyon days,
Since I have enterèd into these wars. (1.2.131–32)
Saint Martin's summer, the notes at the back of my edition explain, is "warm weather in late autumn, St Martin's Day being 11 Nov." The explanation stuck in my mind because it was 11 November when I read it. The celebration in Prospect Park came a day or two later—maybe the English and the Germans honor him according to different calendars. The week was indeed mild for late autumn, as Saint Martin and Joan of Arc augured. When Peter and I bicycled into the city on Sunday afternoon, we had to shed both our jackets and our sweaters. But I'm straying from Shakespeare, whom I mean to talk about somehow. "Halcyon days," the notes further explain, are named after the halcyon, a bird thought by the ancients to make its nest on the sea around this season of the year, and to "charm the waves to a calm" while it brooded.
In graduate school, when I was a youth drunk with the breath of my own significance, I read several of Shakespeare's plays and wrote about them in a notebook, in a hermetic style, believing myself to have pierced through to their true drama, which was, as I then saw it, a war between the characters for possession of the poetic power in the words that formed them. I stopped after a handful of plays, because I had a dissertation to write. More than a decade has gone by since then, and now I'm at the age where one wonders if one will ever get around to achieving certain ambitions. I still want to read Shakespeare's plays and take notes on them. This time I want to read all of them, in the order he wrote them. I gather that a fair amount of guesswork has gone into the order that scholars have established, so I'm not going to be strict about my sequence. As I understand it, for example, there's some evidence that Henry VI Part 1 was written after Henry VI Part 2 and Part 3, but I'm starting with Part 1, as the first of many acknowledgments that I'm reading as an amateur, not as a scholar. Another such acknowledgment is my choice of edition: John Dover Wilson's New Cambridge Edition. As best I can suss out, it's respectable but superseded. Wilson, however, is very companionable as a writer of notes, and the books themselves, hardcover duodecimos from the 1930s and 1950s with typography by Bruce Rogers, approach in size and style my ideal of what a book should physically be. Also amateurish will be the schedule I keep.